TIFF 2021: ‘You Are Not My Mother’ Feeds Familial Fear

Writer/director Kate Dolan’s You Are Not My Mother is a chilling take on the changeling folklore of Ireland, and a very strong first feature. Made on a small budget and set around the festival of Samhain, it’s an impressive debut from Dolan (whose short film Catcalls is available on Shudder, for those interested). 

You Are Not My Mother follows Char (Hazel Doupe), a quiet teenager who lives a lonely life. Her single mother Angela (Carolyn Bracken) suffers through a depression that often keeps her bedridden and unable to perform her duties as a parent. After a rare morning of activity, Angela goes missing, her car suspiciously abandoned in a field. Upon her return, she seems… not quite right. Her behavior, posture, and personality all shift in very noticeable ways. There’s something strange about mum, and Char gradually comes to a frightening conclusion. This is not her mother. 

Doupe and Bracken have a wonderful chemistry that evolves as the film progresses. In early scenes, Char and Angela have a detectable wall between them that communicates a tragic history; Angela is buried behind layers and layers of debris, and Char has long since given up trying to dig her out. 

When Angela reappears after her mysterious absence, Char doesn’t know how to accept her mother’s sudden and unexpected attention. Like any abandoned child, she’s happy that her mum has seemingly returned to her — emotionally present and showering her in the affection she’s so sorely missed. But at the same time, there’s a reluctance to truly believe in it. Doupe is absolutely stunning in her projection of these competing emotions. She carries a vulnerability that turns more fearful as Angela becomes completely unrecognizable in her personality. 

Bracken is incredible, scaling a whole range of emotions with varying intensity. She throws herself into the role — physically and mentally — with a performance that is almost hypnotic in its depth. The cast also features Ingrid Craigie as Rita (Angela’s mother and Char’s grandmother), the secret keeper of the family. Rita holds a capability that’s rusted by years of physical discomfort and emotional burden. Her character does feel a tad underused, but to be fair, it’s not her story we’re focusing on. 

You Are Not My Mother is a female-forward film, with a mainly female cast and very little discussion of male characters; we don’t hear about Char’s father, and there’s no unnecessary romantic side plot, just a focus on female friendships. One of Char’s bullies, Suzanne (Jordanne Jones), slowly bonds with Char over their mutual histories with troubled family life. There’s not a moment that Suzanne doubts or denies Char, she’s just a genuine, sympathetic friend, which Char desperately needs. 

We’ve seen the changeling lore before in horror (such as similarly Irish films The Hallow and The Hole in the Ground), but there’s something about making the suspected villain a mother — rather than a child or other physical entity — that’s extra effective. 

Angela transforms throughout the film, becoming more erratic as time goes on. Char notices these strange behaviors, but it’s hard to accept that something more could be wrong. Despite their troubles, Char loves her mother, and though her actions are concerning and genuinely unnerving, it’s even more difficult to draw the conclusion that there could be something supernatural in the mix, particularly with her mother’s psychological history. 

Like Natalie Erika James’ Relic, You Are Not My Mother grapples with mental health and the responsibility and duty between a parent and a child. Dolan broaches this with care and a great deal of empathy for young Char, who feels isolated and alone despite the supportive presence of her uncle and grandmother and the efforts from her teacher at school. 

From the melancholic score to the open yet intimate cinematography, You Are Not My Mother has an atmospheric tone that dances around tragedy, yet never fully gives in. Dolan’s film has the energy of a Samhain bonfire: it crackles and burns, with a smoky finish that hails the Halloween spirit. 

I love a good “youth in peril” horror, and You Are Not My Mother has an extremely well-crafted and well-weighted use of that trope. It’s a character driven autumnal coming-of-age tale with well-crafted scares that rely on performance, not buckets of blood. 

If you’re looking for a stellar doppelgänger double feature, pair this one with The Hole in the Ground. You’ll never look at your family members the same way again.

For more from TIFF 2021, check out our review of Rob Savage’s Dashcam